“Rent or Own”
The Reverend Phillip Blackburn
May 28, 2017
What is the biggest purchase you have ever made? Think about it for a second. What is the biggest purchase you have ever made. For most of us, it would be a house. For some of us a car. For others amongst us it might be an expensive appliance or a nice television. But no matter what it is, all of us have made a big purchase in our lives. We have bought something that likely strained our income and caused us some degree of stress. Buying something big is no small thing.
I know when I make a large purchase I almost always have immediate buyer’s remorse. As soon as the rush of dopamine in my brain wears off, I look at whatever I purchased: house, car, computer, something like that, and I have an instinct to take it back. I don’t want it any more. Now, I always get over it, but I also always have that feeling of regret, like this big purchase, no matter how practical, was somehow a mistake. I mean, when you buy a house, that is not really a luxury. You need a place to live, and yet for me, signing those documents was stressful on both occasions when I have done it. And why is that?
I think it is because buying something is a commitment. Once we’ve bought something we are tied to it. We can’t just walk away. It’s the attractive thing about living life without contracts. As best as possible, I like to get things that don’t have a contract. My gym membership has no contract. My cable TV has no contract. My cell phone has no contract. I can walk away at any time. Knowing I can do that, even though I value all those things, somehow is comforting to me in a way that owning stuff is not. I can’t walk away from my house. I’ve bought it and I am now married to it, for better or for worse. And to be clear, I don’t have regrets about my house, I could have bought any house and I would still feel the stress of being tied down. But my point here is that even though buying something brings with it security and in some cases even financial upside, it is still a long term commitment, and, for some people like me, that can bring stress.
I wonder what type of person Paul was with this? There is an interesting little note at the end of Acts about Paul. As we find him today he has traveled to Rome. He is there to appeal his sentence of heresy which he had received out in the provinces. As a Roman citizen he had the right to appeal directly to the Emperor, so he has made his way, under guard, to Rome where he will await the judgment of the Emperor to find out if he is free or if he is to be killed. Once he arrives in Rome he goes about doing what he always does, evangelizing. He starts, as his tradition, with the Jewish community with mixed results. But that is not what struck me. What struck me when I read this passage was at the very end. In verse 30 Luke writes that Paul lived in Rome for two whole years at his own expense. Do you know what that means? There is a note in most Bibles here. He rented. Paul rented a little house in Rome. He had no interest in buying.
Now, this could have been for many reasons. Perhaps Paul was being practical. Perhaps he knew he was toast and he didn’t want to buy. Perhaps he couldn’t afford to buy a place. Perhaps that was not the tradition. Maybe Luke wrote this line simply to say Paul was no moocher, that he paid his own way in Rome and didn’t take advantage of some rich Christian. I don’t know. But Paul rented. He could, theoretically, have gotten up and walked away at any time. He was not committed to being in Rome for any longer than was necessary. Maybe Paul and I are kindred spirits in this way. Maybe he was averse to long term commitments as well.
When we think about our lives, while owning things may bring us comfort, I think all of us can see that ownership of anything, house, car, pet, anything, brings also a certain loss of freedom. Once we own something we are beholden to its maintenance. Paul, even under guard, maintained as much freedom as he could. He could leave Rome as soon as he was legally cleared, under no obligation to anyone. The less we own, the more free we are. And perhaps this is Paul’s great message.
But I don’t think so. While the Bible has a lot to say about possessions, and most of it is bad, it also has a lot to say about commitment. About the loss of freedom. Do you know how Paul describes himself in most of his letters. He calls himself a “slave of the Gospel.” And he was not speaking metaphorically. He meant literally. He was literally a slave to the good news. He was no more free to walk away from his calling than he was to get into a rocket ship and fly to the moon. Paul, as it related to his faith, was 100% a buyer. He was all in. When he signed on to Christianity, he signed a lifetime contract.
Now, here is where things get tricky for us. When we make our big life decisions of whether to rent or buy, there is always quite a bit of calculation that goes into them. But often times we do not apply that same calculus to our faith. Luke says some of them believed and some of them didn’t. Some, we can bet, just weren’t sure. They may have liked what Paul had to say, but they didn’t want to leave behind their tradition and their beliefs. This is understandable. But it also means one thing. They were renters.
I feel like sometimes we too are renters. Do you ever feel that way about your faith? That you like it, it means something to you, but you haven’t completely bought into it? I bet some of us do. I bet a lot of us do to be honest. Faith is no easy thing. It has always been hard. And so a lot of us rent. We come here every week. We say our prayers sometimes. Every once in a while we might even pick up the Bible and read it just because we can, but oftentimes we have one foot in and one foot out, so to speak. We are as committed to our faith as Paul was to his house in Rome. We have made a payment but we could stop at any time and we do this because faith is hard.
But here is the thing. The faith to which we have been called, the God we worship here this morning, the church we call home. This is not something we can just rent. We have to buy. All those admonitions about possessions in Scripture are wise in that the Biblical authors understood that stuff brings with it a commitment, and a commitment to anything but God can lead to trouble. Paul was all in when it came to his faith. He was a buyer. Think about what he had been through. He had left his community. He had been mocked, stoned, beaten and shipwrecked. He had been thrown in jail and left for dead. He’d been accused of thievery and chided for being an unimpressive speaker. All of this had befallen him, and yet he persisted. He was a buyer.
Have we bought, or have we rented? It is a hard question to answer and maybe we don’t want to answer it on a beautiful Memorial Day weekend. But here is the truth. When we strip down our lives to their bare bones, to the essentials we live by, we are called by Jesus Christ to be renters in all things except one: except in our lives of faith. If our faith asks us, we should be able to walk away from anything, any commitment, no matter how powerful because at the end of the day every follower of Jesus is a renter in this world. Once we have decided to call ourselves Christians, once we have been baptized in the waters of grace and salvation, we are buyers. There is no going back, there is only forward, whatever might happen, whatever might befall us. We are followers of Jesus Christ, and that is a commitment that lasts more than a lifetime. It lasts an eternity. Amen.